Sarah Palin recently slammed electric car maker Tesla Motors on her Facebook page, referring to it as one of the “losers” of the auto industry. Earlier this week Tesla founder Elon Musk responded, tweeting that he’s “deeply wounded” by Ms. Palin’s words and that some of her assertions about the company are incorrect.
So what’s the background to this online slap fight? Is anybody right here and anybody wrong?
We’ll start with Alaska’s ex-governor. Her post was really about plug-in hybrid vehicle manufacturer Fisker Automotive, not Tesla at all. On April 5 she noted that Fisker, which has received about $200 million in US government loans, was laying off three-fourths of its workforce.
“The Anaheim, CA-based start-up has failed at pretty much every level – especially when it comes to the company’s ultra expensive luxury electric hybrid, the Karma (what a name!),” wrote Palin.
She then went on to hit what she considers other tax-subsidized “losers,” including the Chevy Volt and the Tesla. Palin charged that Tesla’s fancy Model S. turns into a “brick” when the battery completely discharges, requiring a $40,000 repair.
Look, Fisker is low-hanging fruit in terms of criticizing government intervention in the economy. Vice President Joe Biden has attended some company announcements, and now the firm is pretty much belly up. Fully discharged. If there’s a “brick” here, Fisker may be it.
And yes, Volt costs have been subsidized by GM to get sales rolling. But last we looked, Chevy was still in business and Volts were still going out the door. And is California-based Fisker one of President Obama’s “losers”? Elon Musk does not think so.
“Sarah Palin calls Tesla a loser. Am deeply wounded ... btw Model S. warranty does cover ‘bricking’,” he tweeted.
OK, here’s where we really have something to say. Elon Musk is a visionary, the guy behind PayPal, the private SpaceX launch firm, and Tesla. Maybe he’s an Edison for our time, maybe not. But he needs to learn that sometimes the better part of PR valor is keeping your yap shut and moving on.
Tesla was a bystander here at the beginning – Fisker was Palin’s real target. Do we need to add that Mr. Musk’s response on the “bricking” thing would not make us happy if we’d just shelled out more than 60 grand for a Model S? Yes, maybe we can turn our new baby into a brick through inattention! It’s nice the warranty covers it, but we would not want it to happen at all.
Earlier this year Musk had an even more ferocious battle with The New York Times. A Times reporter test-drove a Model S and reported a bad experience – among other things, the car’s battery ran down unexpectedly when parked overnight in low temperatures. Musk responded with a full assault on the reporter’s motives and facts, citing data logs retrieved from the car’s computers.
Eventually the NYT’s public editor concluded that its reporter had problems with “precision and judgment” but not “integrity.”
But sometimes “pyrrhic” and “victory” also go together. Musk himself has said the fight cost the company orders and more than $100 million in revenue. It highlighted that electric cars aren’t yet fully analogous to internal combustion vehicles or even hybrids. Long-distance trips remain a challenge.
That said, have you seen the car? We want one. It’d be cooler than our Honda minivan, even “bricked.”